There was once a young boy named Malik. He came from the sand where all Duslanders are born. And like all Duslanders, he shared dark skin and dark hair blessed by Rahn. Only his eyes were different. They glittered with pure silver stars plucked from the night sky by Lune herself, for Malik was a son of the Lunei.
As is custom among the tribes of the sandsea, the djharn of the Lunei had many sons. Too many. All of them grew into strong, capable warriors. And all were a contender to replace the aging djharn as their tribe’s leader. Malik was born on the third day in the third season as the third son to the third wife. Though he grew as tall as his brothers, none of the elders in his tribe paid Malik much attention. Malik challenged his brothers to contests of strength, wisdom, and courage to prove his worth, but they were all more experienced than he. Malik could not beat his brothers in a duel of swordsmanship, or triumph in games of wit, nor did he possess the courage needed to contest his father’s decisions. The djharn looked upon his eldest sons with pride and dismissed his youngest with indifference. Time and time again, Malik challenged his betters. And each time, Malik lost.
The day soon came for the aging djharn to pass on his sword. The tribe elders hummed with speculation on which son the djharn would choose for his heir. All of his sons had achieved great bounties for the tribe. All except Malik.
The djharn gathered his sons into his tent and made his declaration.
“My sons, you are all worthy and I look upon you with love in my heart. However, only one man can lead this tribe. I cannot choose, and the gods have not sought fit to choose for me. Though you are either strong, wise, or courageous, a good leader must possess all three of these traits.”
The djharn turned to his first-born son. “You are strong and can wield the heaviest of blades. Your strength has protected the tribe from outside enemies. However, strength is not enough to lead this tribe. I challenge you to find wisdom and courage.”
The djharn turned to his second-born son. “You are wise and can read the most complex maps and constellations. Your intellect has led the tribe to new waters. However, wisdom is not enough to lead this tribe. I challenge you to find strength and courage.”
The djharn turned to his third-born son. “You are courageous and not afraid to make a bad decision. Your courage has brought us good fortune. However, courage is not enough to lead this tribe. I challenge you to find strength and wisdom.”
And so on it went. All of the djharn’s sons were tasked to find either strength, wisdom, or courage until only Malik remained.
“But Father,” cried Malik. “What about me?”
The djharn blinked as though he’d forgotten his youngest son still stood there. “Well, my third son from my third wife, I shall give you the most challenging task of all. You have neither the strength, nor wisdom, nor courage to lead this tribe. And so I challenge you to find all three, and this I will name your helbond.”
His father’s words hurt, but Malik met this challenge with defiance. “I will find strength and wisdom and courage,” he said. And then Malik left the tent and entered the sandsea without food, water, a sword to defend himself with, or a camel to carry him.
After hours of wandering through the desert, Malik collapsed with exhaustion and realized he had failed to acquire strength or wisdom. But he did not turn back. Malik crawled through the hot sand until the grains blistered the palms on his hands and the skin of his knees. But he did not turn back. Rahn’s heat burned his neck until even his own sweat left him.
But he did not turn back.
As he crawled, a shape slithered through the dunes and a snake popped its bulbous head out of the sand. A humongous snake, the largest Malik had ever seen! It hissed with menace. Its amber eyes told Malik to turn back.
But Malik would not.
He staggered to his feet and raised his fists. “Move aside, snake,” Malik yelled. “I do not fear the creatures of the sand.”
The snake struck with pointed fangs. Malik grabbed the slithering beast with both hands and wrestled its head away from him. The snake squirmed and sank its sharp teeth into Malik’s shoulder. Blood spurted from the bite. Malik howled and threw the snake down. He pressed his hand to the sticky wound and snarled.
The foul creature coiled around itself, and its amber eyes glowed. The air crackled with sky fire, striking the snake. It burst into flames, and the flames grew tall into the shape of a man.
“I am Rahn, the father of dawn. Who are you to travel the sandsea without a sword to defend yourself with?”
Malik fell to his knees and prostrated himself to the flaming man. “Oh father of blood and fire! I am Malik, the third son of the third wife of the djharn of the Lunei. I travel the sandsea so I may learn strength and wisdom and courage.”
The burning god angled his head as though considering Malik’s words. Rahn’s voice shook the sands. “But, child of the Lunei who travels the sandsea and challenges my avatar without a blade—do you not already possess strength? You are, it seems, lacking in wisdom.”
Malik glanced up at the god. “Where may I find wisdom?”
“I do not help mortal men,” the god said, and his flames faded into ash. Behind the dunes, Rahn began his descent and soon the cool winds of night replaced the fire of day.
Malik hugged his shoulders and continued his trek through the sandsea. Though walking through the sands had burned his skin, now the same sands burned with the bite of cool steel. He couldn’t tell how far he stumbled onward, or how long he walked. Endless dunes stretched in all directions, and only the position of the stars in the velvet sky guided his way.
But he did not turn back.
Now, there are a few lessons all Lunei are taught at birth, and one of those are the shapes of stars. Malik thought it wise to travel by starlight than be tricked by mirages during the day. And he knew that a constellation in the shape of a fox would guide his way to an oasis.
Sure enough, the fox led him to a natural paradise. There, he slumped beside the cool waters and drank. In the sapphire pool, a mirage of a woman took shape. Malik leaped back, startled, as a woman in flowing blue robes emerged from within.
“Do not be alarmed,” the woman said. “I am Lune and you are one of my children. Tell me, son of the Lunei, why do you travel the sandsea without food, water, or a camel to carry you?”
Malik cried in awe at the sight of the beautiful goddess and fell to his knees. “Oh mother of night and water! I am Malik, the third son of the third wife of the djharn of the Lunei. I travel the sandsea so I may learn strength and wisdom and courage.”
Lune smiled. “But, my son who travels the sandsea and follows my stars to find my waters—do you not already possess wisdom? You are, it seems, lacking in courage.”
Malik glanced up at the goddess. “Where may I find courage?”
“There is only one place you may find courage,” Lune said. “You must turn back.”
The goddess faded into the pond before Malik could question her. Frustrated at being left with such a riddle, Malik curled into a bush and slept in the arms of the oasis. He did not wish to return to his father empty handed and be branded a failure.
Three days and three nights passed. Malik ate berries and fruit from Gai’s bountiful trees and drank refreshing water from Lune’s pool. But he knew, deep within his heart, that he needed to return to his tribe.
And so Malik turned back.
When Malik returned, his brothers were waiting for him, and all of them looked pleased. They had succeeded in acquiring strength and wisdom and courage.
Malik entered his father’s tent with his head hung low. “I have returned, Father.”
The djharn eyed his son with suspicion. “You left our tribe without food, water, a sword to defend yourself with, or a camel to carry you. Did you find strength?”
“I did, Father. I fought a snake with my bare hands.” Malik showed his father the dried crimson wound.
The djharn’s silver eyes opened wide. “Did you find wisdom?”
“I did, Father. I followed the stars and found an oasis to shelter me. I drank from her waters and ate from Gai’s bounty.”
The djharn stroked his beard. “And did you find courage?”
Malik met his father’s silver stare. “I did not, Father. The gods told me to return home, and I deemed this cowardly. But I could not find courage. And so I returned.”
The djharn leaned back on his throne and smiled. “But, my son who travels the sandsea and returns to confess his failure—do you not already possess courage? I sent my sons on this quest to find strength and wisdom and courage, and they tell me they have accomplished this, yet they do not meet my eye. You tell me the truth of your failure and I see it. That is true courage. And so, third son of my third wife, I name this triumph your helbond, and you as my heir.”
The djharn’s words stirred a great awakening within Malik. “Forgive me, Father, but I cannot accept. I realize now that I possess strength and wisdom and courage, and I could not have discovered this until I left the tribe. I must leave again and achieve great bounties for our people.”
The djharn bowed his head. “Then go with my blessing, Malik of the Lunei, and be strong, and wise, and courageous.”
And thus began the adventures of Malik the Merciless. How did he earn his title? That is another tale to be told…